High profile faith loss deteriorates faith
I’ve lambasted David Bazan in the past (gosh, I’m a child of the 2000s) because he kind of made a living off of losing his faith and selling records to kids who were on the edge of or over the edge of faith. I have to admit, as David wrestled with doubt, I found a lot of it appealing—especially in college, as I was wrestling with my young faith and figuring out who I was going to be next. I appreciate David’s artistry, but I think he has lacked some responsibility for deepening people’s doubts. I don’t blame him because I really do think his art is just a matter of self-expression, just like I don’t blame the recent celebrities like Josh Harris (who wrote a popular anti-dating book in the 1990s) or Marty Sampson (a megachurch music artist) for declaring their loss of faith either. I think they are sharing what’s going on with them, maybe they are floodlighting a little, but for them I think it’s an authentic expression.
I do not think they bear the responsibility for maintaining their followers’ faith, but I do think their example could deteriorate faith. I am not impressed with the fundamentalists that yell at them for having the wrong faith, for not trusting in Jesus enough, or for losing faith when institutional, culturally-bound Christianity fails them. The fundamentalists are still telling them faith is about an individual expression with Christ, and despite the failures of Christians around them that intimate bond they share with their Maker should be good enough.
Honestly, it is precisely that kind of condemnation that exacerbates the problem we are in. I think the self-importance and lack of empathy of Christians is exactly why people lost their faith to begin with.
Both Harris and Sampson, and I’m really just using them as an example of a bigger trend, thought Christian judgmentalism was the worst part about their faith, especially when it came to eternal condemnation, Biblical “inerrancy” (or literalism—that is to say, trying the impossible task of interpreting the Bible word-for-word), and judgment of so-called sinners (usually queer friends, as it turns out).
I feel for the vulnerable here because both the example of the high-profile Christians losing their faith, as well as fundamentalists condemning them for doing so, does a number on people on the edges. I want to reverse that. I want to specialize in empathy and understanding, and in doing so, link that very empathy and understanding to Jesus, his incarnation, his life, his death, and resurrection. God loved us by becoming us. That is the master plan for empathy and understanding. God loved us by becoming us. Jesus is next to you in your doubt, and your struggle, and your fear. Jesus won’t abandon you, even if you abandon the faith you grew up with. In fact, you probably need to if you want to be a Christian for a long time.
Brittle faith breaks before it bends
Yes, you’ll have to lose your faith in order to gain it. Preserving the faith you had when you grew up is really not unlike “saving your life,” as Jesus says. Here’s the full passage from Matthew 16:
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
We have to hold loosely the things that we hold dear to us in this world so that we can move with what the Spirit is doing next. We hold things loosely so that we can adapt and grow, just as the Bible shows us time and again. A flexible faith is resilient; a fundamentalist faith is not. Honestly, when I see people who can’t outgrow the faith of their childhood, or the faith of the culture at large, I feel pity, but I’m also motivated. The loudest faith, or the most “memetic” faith, is the one that is most absolutist and black-and-white. That kind of faith is good for growing up and it’s easy to spread like wildfire. But it has major limitations that I lament.
People are leaving the faith because they don’t know another one. Josh Harris spent much of his career condemning people who dated. That condemnation-oriented faith eventually was too much for him to handle. How much did his approach hurt others? His attempt to correct his faith and apologize is guilt-ridden, and it subsequently collects empathy. People are still taking care of HIM. Someone even said, “he’s acting like a better Christian now.” For me, I’ll take him at his word. And I won’t force Christianity onto him since he has declined to do that (that sort of presumption is notoriously Christian too, “well, actually, I think you are a Christian” even though he says he’s not).
My sister, who is close with Harris, asked me what I thought of Harris’s loss of faith. I told her: I don’t think he developed a faith that was deep enough to change when he needed it to. So his rigid fundamentalism broke instead of flexed. If Harris felt moved to embrace LGBT people but thought that contradicted the Bible, I think that explains his faith crisis. It becomes a binary: accept LGBT people or accept the Bible. That binary is derived from fundamentalism. Queering the Bible and your faith, that is to say, making it flexible, actually makes it stronger and more resilient. Fundamentalism’s rigidity ends up making faith brittle. (Reference.)
I felt similarly about Marty Sampson too. Marty struggled with hell, literalism of the Bible, and judgmentalism of Christians. Honestly, I feel for Marty Sampson and for all people whose fundamentalism is too brittle to flex. It honestly sounded like he had a very insular experience. But I’m sad that the rigidity of some parts of Christians make it hard to see the parts that might have helped this dude. Maybe he’ll make a comeback, but his is a story I hear all the time. And yes, some of us are OK with the so-called contradictions in the Bible. And we view “hell” differently. We allow science to correspond with faith. And we rebuke the judgmental Christians around us.
My advice here is not to rigidly adopt the theology that I’ve come up with, but to not be rigid at all, but rather porous and malleable. Be flexible, allow for entrance and exit, but have enough of a sense of yourself that you don’t lose yourself altogether. A very disparate or rigid faith is more vulnerable to loss. Too disparate and it becomes empty, hollow, vacuous. Too rigid and it can’t endure any stress before breaking.
There is a better way to follow Jesus, and I’ve committed my life to showing people how to.
I feel committed to keep demonstrating this kind of Christianity, one that I think is more inline with the flexibility of the Bible. But I am sympathetic to the people who have lost their faith and couldn’t recover it from the rigid structure they think faith is. A reason that people can’t find other expressions of Christianity is because the fundamentalism that broke their faith told them those people weren’t real Christians. When I was younger, I was ready to call it quits when fundies told me I wasn’t a real Christian. Circle of Hope saved me.
We may not be very easy to digest, but I do think a more thoughtful, even cumbersome faith, is better. Circle of Hope is thoughtful, and thus cumbersome. It’s not “sound-biteable,” because we really do think the gospel is best translated relationally—and so you’ll need to get to know us in person. I know that’s a barrier to entry, but it’s a journey toward authentic faith too. I want to get better at sharing our message clearly, so that’s why I’m even writing this post.
We want to be flexible, but maintain enough structure that people can get in and out. It’s important to be able to lose what you can in faith, in order to be able to grab it. So even in our flexibility, and cumbersomeness, all people can come to relate to Jesus in our body.
But we do theology together. We do it in relationship. The dialogue of love is what holds us together, and that’s different than a lot of places. You don’t have an expert to do it. You don’t even need to be totally sure about your faith. If you’re on the edge of faith, or even over the edge, we have room for you here. We’re a good church for you for that reason. We’re a different church for that reason, too.